Fairies remain a popular interest to many people although not many know the true nature of these beings in an Irish context. Due to the destructive influence of popular culture, many people wrongfully assume that they are small, winged, harmless creatures. This is not the case and in truth, it is much more complicated than that. I have had many people refuse outright to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, when I inform them of this, so I hope this article makes some of this clearer.
They may sometimes appear smaller than us, but certainly not minuscule like the tinkerbell-esque creatures people expect. They look just like us and certainly don’t have wings, but due to existing on another plane to us, are able to conceal themselves. They live lives like us for the most part. Below I will detail how they live in their society, their origin stories and other information. Fairy lore, a pervasive belief around Ireland offers us a fascinating glimpse at the Irish perception of the otherworld- an alternative realm parallel to our own but just beyond earthly existence and our own temporal sphere. Eddie Lenihan, arguably one of foremost experts on the fairies, would argue that there is considerable and respectable proof of their existence owing to the vast corpus of material available through the ages and in all this material they have been described in great detail ( and not once have they been depicted with wings!).
To start I will look at the naming conventions. The word fairy is the most Widely known and easily identifiable ,although it is not a suitable, nor respectful term to use as such (as it falsely equates them with English fairies who are closer to imps or the tinkerbell type). Nor is any form of FAE or FAERIE (from old French and latin respectively). Known in Irish by many names and circumlocutions, they are not usually named directly for fear of insulting or invoking them. Typically know as Aes sídhe or daoine sídhe (the people of the mounds), they could also be referred to as na daoine maithe (the good people), na daoine úaisle (the noble people), the fair folk, the other crowd, the people of the hills and so on. For the remainder of the article I will simply refer to them as sídhe or the other crowd.
Society, likes and dislikes
So how does their society work? They have amusements similar to ours: they like to dance, play music and play games. They have been known to play Gaelic football (never soccer), hurling, bowls and chess. In terms of the games they will sometimes illicit the help of some hapless human (who dare not refuse them) to referee or take part in the match. The need for human help is a common motif and they will often be spirited away to take part in the games or in some cases where human women must act as midwife to deliver babies for the sídhe.
They have specific dwellings and a number of features of the landscape are often identified as being the abode of the other crowd, such as ringforts (lios or rath in Irish, these are circular enclosured earthen dwellings mostly dating to the middle ages), tumuli, dolmens or lone trees known as fairy trees (traditionally hawthorn). These enclosures and suspected abodes are usually treated with extreme caution even to this day (and good luck trying to find someone willing to cut down a fairy tree). They will furiously protect their dwellings and woe betide to anyone stupid enough to mess with them. Death and destruction is all that typically awaits those who transgress. That being said, they can make good or bad neighbours depending on how they are treated. They can be belligerent, but are placatable. Their true dwellings, those that exist in the otherworld are typically conceal from our view, similar to the magical barrier, the fé fiada, that was said to conceal the mounds and hostels of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
They have their own specific pathways and roads and they would travel from place to place. When building houses it was not unusual to mark out the shape of the house with willow rods or small stone cairns. This would be left overnight to see if the house was “in the way” of any of these fairy paths. The willow rods had been removed from the ground, or the cairn of stones was disturbed, it was believed that the house was in the way of a fairy path and the process would be repeated until the rods or stones are left untouched. Many tales tell of houses that were in the way with loud noises being heard in the house at night, crashing, doors slamming, houses collapsing and general bad luck within the household.
Like ourselves, they have likes and dislikes. They like things like gold, milk (the first milk, known as colostrum or beestings, is often given as an offering to the sídhe), tobacco and poitín (often given as an offering to them). Most things associated with them are of a particular time: they will ride horses, but not cars or any auto-mobiles, they fight with sticks or hurleys but never guns or knives. Most of their activities are associated with Gaelic culture or associated with the natural landscape. When it comes to their hates, there are a number of items. They hate iron: it is one of the main repellents used when trying to discourage the other crowd. You see this a lot when trying to protect babies from being stolen and replaced by fairy changelings. It also pops up a lot in terms of protection while churning. Iron is an age old deterrent against evil or supernatural forces and many cultures around the globe believed this and as a result blacksmiths and iron workers are usually revered or thought to possess special powers as a result of them working with the iron (there is an article focusing on blacksmiths and the supernatural here ). They also hate salt and you will often encounter it being used as protection when churning butter. Salt will be sprinkled on the lid of the churn, underneath or into the butter itself to protect the process from being interfered with by the sídhe. Salt rubbed on the head when venturing outside at Halloween was used to protect anyone outside after dark. They also have a dislike of anything dirty (such as messy houses), they have an aversion to Christianity (both of their origin stories play into this and it is a common theme of many folktales where the sídhe will try to get a human to question a priest as to why they can’t get into heaven). I will cover the origin stories below. They also hate running water and are unable to cross it. This is also a common feature of folktales where someone fleeing the wrath of the sídhe, will only escape through crossing a stream (or in a few cases leaving Ireland completely by ship!).
The other crowd are also more active at certain times of the yearly cycle (such as may day or Samhain) and also at certain points of the life cycle (such as at birth) so salt and iron were used, among other things, at these times to remain safe from any malevolent actions the sídhe might want to take against you. As I mentioned above, may people find it hard to believe that they are not harmless. I have spent hours trying to convince some people that it is not in their best interest to seek out the sídhe. Even slight transgressions have ended in death, maiming or with transgressor ending up being driven completely mad or catatonic. I should add a caveat here. They are not overtly evil. They just have their own (often mysterious) agenda. It just so happens that accounts and tales of people falling foul of them far outweigh the opposite. That however does not mean they can’t or don’t help people. As I mentioned above, they sometimes need human intervention (be that in a sporting event or delivering a baby) and for their help, the person will often be rewarded. They have bestowed powers of healing (such as Biddy Early’s blue bottle or a number of healing books said to have been given to certain people over time). They have also been known to have bestowed fairy music on musicians who have played for them at a party. In times of famine, they have sometimes given otherworldly cows (designated by their white body and red ears) with endless milk to certain communities (who often inevitably mess up by exploiting this gift).
As I mentioned above there are two main origin stories for what we now call the fairies. There is what could be termed the native origin story, and the Christian one.
Native: From ancient times it was believed that a supernatural race has been believed to have lived in the hills, tombs, beneath the sea or lakes or on far away islands. In the literature, these are traditionally know as the Tuatha Dé Dannan, the old gods of Ireland (such as Lugh, the Dagda, Brighid etc). These were seen as living in the otherworld, parallel to our own, but concealed from view. So, when it comes to what I termed the “native” origin story, it is believed that the “fairies” are in fact the Tuatha Dé Dannan, albeit diminished in spiritual significance, power and physical stature following their defeat and banishment underground.
Christian: As most will know, the entirety of our myths and legends were first recorded by Christian clerics in monastic scriptorium. Unlike the usual modus operandi elsewhere in Europe to demonize the pagan past, Ireland instead opted for euhemerisation. Most stories were given a Christian slant, but this was to work the stories into a Christian framework and make them acceptable. Unfortunately this meant that some gods were turned to humans (such as queen Medbh, Finn Mac Cumhaill, Brighid etc) and some stories were corrupted but for the most part, they were recorded by Irish monks who had an interest in the pagan past and were, in a sense, sympathetic to it. This leads us to the origin of the fairies as being half-fallen angels, cast out of heaven for not picking a side during the rebellion. They remain, half-way between heaven and hell, in the sky, on the land and beneath the earth, cursed to never see heaven (or till judgement day in some cases). This christian explanation for the sídhe became popular in the middle ages, no doubt a means for resolving the tension between the native and Christian cosmologies. As such it is not unusual to have devout Christian who fervently believes in the other crowd. This clearly preserved the native tradition and it’s syncretism also gave the fairy faith a prominent place in Christian eschatology and cosmology.